The recent fighting right along the Turkmen-Afghan border seems to have prodded Ashgabat into finally adopting a policy toward its southern neighbor, but it is not a policy that is likely to suit any of the parties in Afghanistan.
Turkmenistan was forced to react to Afghan problems when fighting broke out along Turkmenistan's border with Afghanistan's northern Faryab and Jowzjan provinces. The Turkmen government reacted harshly when Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev spoke about security problems along the Turkmen-Afghan border on October 15. Ashgabat denied there were any problems but one week later Taliban militants, fleeing combat in the Jowzjan Province, sheltered on an island in the Amu-Darya, the river that divides Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. It is also an island that Turkmenistan has been claiming as its territory.
Afghan First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum had chased the militants from villages in the Hamyab district of Jowzjan and vowed to wipe out the group on the island. Dostum said he was in contact with Turkmen officials, apprising them of his intentions to attack the Taliban on the island and seeking Turkmenistan's help in eliminating the group.
For Turkmenistan, with its UN-recognized status as a neutral country, the presence of some 80 Taliban fighters, described by Afghan media as "heavily armed," on land where Turkmen border guards had recently been chasing away Afghans and in some cases arresting them presented a huge problem. Beyond, of course, the fact that any pretense by Turkmen authorities that the border was calm had just been shattered.
Faced With A Choice
Faced with militants on its border, the Turkmen authorities wavered. After initially maintaining contact with Dostum and his forces, communications from the Turkmen side suddenly stopped. Dostum's spokesman Sultan Faizi and others said they were waiting for a response from Turkmenistan; would Turkmenistan block Taliban fighters from fleeing across the border into Turkmenistan, might Turkmen forces join in the attack on the militants?
In the meantime, Turkmenistan's military sent helicopters to fly over the island and it became known that the island, ownership of which had long been in dispute, had been divided in half by Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan's military built a fence. On the northern side were Turkmenistan's border guards.
The presence of Turkmenistan's troops and the overflights by helicopters prevented Dostum's forces from shelling the island in preparation for an assault. On October 24, Dostum seemed resigned to the fact Turkmenistan would not respond to his requests for joint action and said his Afghan forces would wait while the Taliban militants starved.
He did not have to wait long. Most, maybe all, of the Taliban on the island crossed the river back into Afghanistan and counterattacked. RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, reported that locals claimed the Taliban killed "10 or 12" of Dostum's elite troops before being gunned down, captured, or fleeing.
Afghanistan's Tolo TV news showed some of the captured militants and one told an amazing tale. "They [Turkmen border guards] said: 'We will not give you a place here. We are neutral,'" the captive said. When asked who said that, the captive militant replied, "Turkmenistanis. They said, 'We will give you bread, eat this bread then go away.'"
...But Not Choosing Either Side
So Turkmenistan seems to have chosen the quickest remedy to its problems but in the process has probably made enemies of Dostum's forces and the Taliban.
Turkmenistan's border guards and helicopters prevented Dostum's forces from destroying the Taliban group on the island by shelling them and the militants' counterattack resulted in about a dozen of Dostum's troops being killed.
Turkmen border guards did not attack the Taliban on the island and apparently even helped feed them but in the end told the Taliban fighters they had to go back to Afghanistan.
One curious aspect to this story is why the reportedly heavily armed Taliban did not simply attack Turkmenistan's border guards, take their weapons, and take up positions on the island. Returning to Hamyab meant near certain death for them anyway.
Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir contributed to this report